I am a fisherman. I do drive on the beach, but I am also a beachfront homeowner. My backyard is the beach, and it is the very same piece of shoreline that has caused so much controversy over the last six years. I, therefore, feel that I am positioned exactly in the center of this argument.
I have a bachelor’s degree in geology from Columbia University with a minor in mining engineering. While on sabbatical leave from Longwood High School, I had the privilege of working for Louis Lefkowitz, the then-Attorney General of New York State. I was part of the Environmental Protection Bureau, which went on to become the DEC or Department of Environmental Conservation.
I was privileged to frequent the writing of the now famous Tidal Wetlands Act. Here I met coastal geologists, professors of botany specializing in tidal marsh plants and civil engineers who went on to become attorneys in coastal law. The entire concept of open beaches, beach access and who controls this access and what can take place on the beaches became hot items of discussion.
It was in these meetings that I first became aware of the long history of vehicles having public access to open and unrestricted beaches and how, over time, this access and openness has gradually been closed to the general public.
Discussed was the existence of the Cannon Law, which was told to be enacted during the revolutionary times or the War of 1812. It forbade the erection of fences or barricades along beaches so that cavalry and horse-drawn artillery could move freely along the beach in order to repel a foreign invasion. It was felt that this law could be modernized to secure access for emergency vehicles.
Also discussed was the tradition that gave farmers the right to search the beach, with horse and wagon, to find seaweed to be used for fertilizer. The famous dory fishermen of Montauk used a horse-drawn trailer that carried a double-ended dory which would pull the netted fish up onto the beach.
Eventually horses were replaced by four-wheel-drive vehicles. East End fire departments, in keeping with tradition, operated “dory rescue units” that were launched from the beach directly into the surf. All these activities depended on one thing: beaches without obstructions.
On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a new beachfront property owner moved in and immediately built a fence. No one could access the beach. The case went to court and the fence-builder won. However, on appeal, the verdict was overturned. It seems that there was a tradition of fishing on that beach. The judge ruled that tradition trumped the law dealing with beach property.
In Wading River today, the controversy centers around what is meant by the “high tide line” or an even more nebulous concept, the “mean high tide line.” This “line” changes every day. Property owners take the high tide on the moon’s quarter phase (1st and 3rd quarter) and place their signs and fences down to this point. These high tides, sometimes called “neap tides,” are the lowest high tides of the month. This enables the property owner to claim a large section of the beach.
A week later, during the full moon phase, the tides are much higher. The high tide moves way up the beach face. The seaward end of these obstructions are now in the Long Island Sound, making it impossible to even walk the shore. The Riverhead Town attorney’s office has numerous photos depicting this fact, which I myself have submitted to them.
There is a phenomenon that I call the “incredible shrinking beach.” The beach shrinks in reality, but it does not shrink in their deeds. Every year, property owners, myself included, lose some beach to erosion, especially this past year. Yet the sign-posters and fence-builders point to their deeds and say that they still own as much as 100 feet out into the water because “it says so in my deed.” This, they insist, gives them the right to stop all beach traffic, including pedestrians who simply walk the shoreline.
During the winter, successive high tides smash into the toe of the bluff and the base of the bulkheads. It took nearly one year to get the DEC and Riverhead Town’s permission to rebuild our bulkheads after the storm damage. The bulkheads run parallel to the bluff at its toe without beach obstruction, yet the signs, fences and other obstructions built on the beach by a select few elitists to stop all people from accessing “their” beach is being permitted by the DEC and Riverhead Town.
There have been assaults made on 4X4 operators and their vehicles. They have been harassed and physically threatened. Homeowners have buried spikes in the tracks just waiting for the next truck to come by which I, unfortunately, fell victim to. They have even harassed Wading River residents walking along the beach.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed three beach emergencies: a fire that destroyed a bulkhead, stairs and bluff; an overturned canoe and a boat explosion. In all cases, first responders had to arrive via four-wheel-drive vehicles. Just west of my beach and my association’s beach is Little Flower and Camp DeWolf ,where they hold camp for disabled children and different organizations such as the “Make a Wish Foundation.” They, too, visit the beach. Should an emergency occur along our Wading River shoreline, the first responders cannot respond due to the obstructions on the beach and the tides. Who will be responsible for taking a life?
The select few bought their homes knowing that four-wheel-drive vehicles drove the beach. They are, in every way, analogous to those who buy next to an airport or duck farm and then demand that the airport or duck farm be shut down because the planes are too noisy or the ducks smell!
Just to be clear, myself, my neighbors and the fishermen/women I know who drive on the beach have done so for most of their lives. This is our beach and we love it. We have beach permits allowing us to drive on the beach during the hours of 6 p.m. to 9 a.m., when all sunbathers have long gone home. Most of us even partake in cleaning the beach several times throughout the year because of our love for it. We respect it and care for it. For the select few to decide that they are going to close the beach to everyone is wrong. They should be receiving fines for their obstructions and there should be arrests made for the assaults. It leads us to question: Are they being protected? If so, by whom? Why haven’t the obstructions been removed to date? The town is hanging the four-wheel-drive operators and beach pedestrians out to dry. It is the Town of Riverhead who should have drawn the line in the sand, not the elitists.
Mr. Hermsdorf is a Wading River resident.